Originally created in the 1950s to provide diabetics with a sweet, fizzy beverage to guzzle, diet soda was soon marketed to weight watchers as a way to sip a virtually calorie-free drink (debatably) tastier than water. Beverage corporations replaced the sugar (from various sources, one of which is high fructose corn syrup) with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin to create so-called healthier versions for people addicted to the great flavor and sparkling pop of soda, and sales soared.
But, research is beginning to show that diet soda is not the panacea of packing on pounds.
“Studies have looked at how diet sodas can stimulate sweet cravings, how people can compensate for the calories they save when drinking diet sodas with higher-calorie food choices afterwards, and how diet sodas can change our intestinal microflora,” says Elisabetta Politi, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N., C.D.E., nutrition director at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.
The artificial sugar substitutes used to drop calories are now thought to affect the body in multiple ways that may actually lead to weight gain.
But, Is Diet Soda Bad for You? What the Science Says
Aspartame, which is one of many artificial sweeteners used in diet sodas, has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration as: “safe as a general-purpose sweetener in food.” The other three artificial sweeteners that are approved by the FDA and often found in diet beverages these days include: saccharin, acesulfame potassium (Ace-K), and sucralose.
“There are many studies done by other investigators [outside the FDA] that indicate that sugar substitutes may be somewhat detrimental in terms of our overall health,” says Richard Hodin, M.D. “But… the data are somewhat confusing. However, generally it appears that these sugar substitutes are failing to do what they are designed to do in terms of preventing obesity, diabetes, and other aspects of the metabolic syndrome.”
Aspartame, for example, was found in a study conducted on mice by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital to block an enzyme called intestinal alkaline phosphatase (IAP), a gut enzyme that has been shown to prevent metabolic syndrome in those mice. “IAP normally functions in the gut to block inflammation and maintain a strong gut barrier,” says Hodin, a senior author of the study. “Aspartame gets broken down into phenylalanine in the intestine. Phenylalanine blocks IAP, which normally acts to protect from obesity and diabetes. So by inhibiting IAP, the aspartame ends up predisposing individuals to those disorders.”
A paper published in PLoS ONE that looked at the artificial sweetener consumption of nearly 1,500 people over 28 years revealed that those who consumed aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame potassium, or sucralose regularly (and not just in diet soda) were more likely to have higher body mass indexes and higher incidence of abdominal obesity than those who didn’t use low-calorie sweeteners. Authors noted that the mechanisms for the association between use of these sweeteners and the increase in abdominal obesity are still unknown. However, they hypothesize that low-calorie sweeteners can mess with people’s satiety signals in the brain, suggesting that users may be compelled to overeat because their brains were expecting satiety, but their bodies got a super-sweet, low- or no-calorie food or drink instead.
Another study found that people who regularly consume the artificially sweetened sodas may compensate for the lack of calories by consuming a higher amount of calories from food that’s high in sugar, sodium, and fat. The researchers looked at almost 22,000 U.S. adults from 10 years of data culled from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The survey revealed that those who drank diet beverages consumed a larger percentage of their daily calories from energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods like cookies, ice cream, and fried foods. However, these individuals were already obese or overweight. Diet-beverage consumption appeared to be protective for adults at a healthy weight; they ate 73 fewer calories from solid food on a typical day, whereas overweight and obese adults who drank diet beverages consumed 194 more calories per day.
Scientists from Imperial College London released commentary on the lack of information showing that artificially sweetened beverages (ASBs) are healthier than sugar-sweetened sodas. “The absence of consistent evidence to support the role of ASBs in preventing weight gain and the lack of studies on other long-term effects on health strengthen the position that ASBs should not be promoted as part of a healthy diet,” wrote the scientists. Mic drop…
4 Ways to Wean Yourself Off of Diet Soda
It’s not easy to just stop and drop the soda habit, diet or not. Many types of soda contain caffeine, which is addictive itself, as well as flavors that have been market-tested to provide maximum enjoyment and cravings.
“While the jury is still out when it comes to absolve-or-accuse diet sodas, I think the most sensible approach is to limit its consumption as much as possible,” says Politi. “Water definitely should be our beverage of choice,” she says, “and if we want carbonation, choose sparkling water.”
And our taste buds are adjustable, so it is possible to wean yourself off of the diet brew as long as you follow a few simple steps to cut your consumption down gradually. Just don’t switch over to regular soda, Politi says. “With 10 teaspoons of sugar and about 140 calories in a 12-ounce can, a regular soda is not a healthy choice.”
Here are ways to get both your caffeine and sweet fix without expanding your waistline:
- If your diet beverage of choice contains caffeine, dealing with the effects of caffeine withdraw can be one of the toughest parts of dropping the diet soda habit, but thankfully coffee is ubiquitous in our society. Instead of drinking a caffeinated soda, sip half a cup coffee, or drink caffeinated tea (such as black or even green) if coffee isn’t for you.
- Add a bit of real sugar to your coffee or tea to give you a sweet rush without resorting to the fake stuff. “Adding one teaspoon of sugar can add enough sweetness to satiate you, but only has 16 calories,” says Politi. Placate your brain by giving it a dose of the sweet stuff once a day, but don’t go over a teaspoon.
- Switch to sparkling water to get that fizzy kick. If plain-old bubbly water is too boring for your taste buds, trying going for the flavored, unsweetened versions — but double check the ingredients list to ensure it’s free of added sugar or sweeteners. You can also add a splash or two of your favorite no-sugar-added fruit juice, or mix in flavors like mint, lemon, ginger, and cucumber, says Politi.
- Try timing your diet soda substitutions for those parts of the day when you really crave one. If the mid-day slump is when you usually go to the vending machine for a fix, pour a cup of coffee, brew up some strong tea, or mix up a sparkling cucumber mint mocktail to satisfy your craving.